It was somewhere around the first of the year in 1976 when we started hearing it on the radio, and it generally inspired two reactions among the 15-going-on-16 male crowd.
The first was, “What the hell is that?”
We had never heard anything like “Love to Love You Baby.”
The second reaction was: “That sucks.”
We didn’t like it.
Or did we? Strictly speaking, we liked the idea of a woman making those sounds. We liked even better the idea that we might be the one making her make those sounds. But we also knew that the likelihood of that was somewhere between slim and none. And being reminded of that unlikelihood every couple of hours, as we would have been in mid-February when “Love to Love You Baby” rose to #2 on the Hot 100, was not particularly pleasant, especially given how impossibly damn horny the 15-going-on-16 male crowd was (and is, and ever shall be, world without end, amen).
So we blamed the messenger. We greedily circulated the rumors about Donna Summer—that there was a version of the song that ran 17 minutes (which is true), and that Summer was actually having sex while it was recorded (she was not, although she was lying down, and the story goes, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe). And after “Love to Love You Baby” dropped off the radio, we didn’t think much about her at all.
She would be back, of course, but out of the gate, Summer was not the Queen of Disco. Her next four chart hits would fail to reach the Top 40. It was with “I Feel Love” that her dominance began. The record first charted in Billboard on August 6, 1977, and Summer songs would remain in the Hot 100 through the week of April 29, 1978. After a week off the chart, she would be back for the week of May 13, when “Last Dance” debuted; there would not be another Summer-less week on the Hot 100 for exactly two years, until the week of May 10, 1980, one week after “On the Radio” dropped off. That’s 142 out of 143 weeks. (Elton John once appeared in 171 out of 173 weeks; the Bee Gees had two streaks of more than 40 weeks between 1977 and 1979, but they were separated by a five-month gap in the last half of 1978.)
But “Last Dance,” coming at the moment when disco had invaded Holiday Inn lounges from coast to coast, launched the rocket. During those two red-hot years, she scored nine Top 5 singles, four of which were #1. It may surprise you, as it did me, to remember that “Last Dance” got only to #3; her first #1 was “MacArthur Park” in the fall of ’78. “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “No More Tears,” a much-hyped duet with Barbra Streisand, would follow it to the top. (For the week of June 30, 1979, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls” would sit at #2 and #3 on the Hot 100. It was a feat of dominance matched in the 70s only by what the Bee Gees had managed in 1978.) Not only that: In the same two-year period, Summer released three straight double albums, each of which hit #1, an accomplishment unrivaled by anybody.
In 1980, Summer left Casablanca Records, for whom she had scored her biggest hits. On her first release for her new label, she moved away from her classic sound, adding a rock edge to The Wanderer. It didn’t change anything with the fans, at first—“The Wanderer” made #3 on sheer momentum. But tastes were changing in the early 80s, and she would get back to the Top 10 only three times after that: with “Love Is in Control” in 1982, “She Works Hard for the Money” a year later—a record that is as emblematic of its time as “Last Dance” and “Hot Stuff” are of theirs—and a final Top-10 hit, the Stock-Aitkin-Waterman production “This Time I Know It’s for Real,” in 1989.
Honesty compels me to report that I was no fan of Summer’s during her heyday. There was disco music I liked, and disco music I did not, and hers I did not. In the intervening years, however, I learned to like a great deal of it. The innovation of “I Feel Love” still amazes; the big thump of “Hot Stuff” was always more rock than disco; “Heaven Knows” and “Dim All the Lights” are great showcases for her voice and among the best songs she ever got to record. (“Bad Girls” is still awful, however.)
Please: tell your friends, relatives, and everyone you meet: Donna Summer is not the singer who recorded “I Will Survive,” which was trending on Twitter yesterday in conjunction with the news of her death. Perhaps she should have recorded it. Now she won’t.
(The Friday feature originally scheduled for today will appear Monday.)